The night I bottomed out in December 1989 it was snowing lightly—little feathery, inhibited flakes that seemed shamed at having arrived as too-early guests. I attempted to get up and felt the stabbing pain of paresthesia in my legs and fell to my knees as though in prayer. My legs were useless. I pushed up from the ground with my fingertips as pins and needles exploded in my shins and began hobbling towards the broad white marble steps of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station like a newborn fawn until the numbness went away. I lurched to the first pay phone I saw inside the station, leaned against it, and placed a collect call.
“Bill, have you got a spare bed?” I asked, head beginning to pound. William Smart, Director of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, answered. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “We’ve got a full house right now.” I counted to five before pleading, “I’ve sublet the apartment on Saint Mark’s Place and have no place to go….” Beat. “Bill, I need to dry out....” Another beat. We had had this conversation before. “…And you’re probably broke, right?” he asked. “Afraid so,” I answered. I had left for Europe without any money in my pocket. And now I was even more deeply in debt. I had no telephone number, no address, and no commissions. The banks had confiscated my plastic. I had defaulted on my student loans. I had spent a lot of money I didn’t have to buy myself more time in Europe to figure out whether I sincerely wanted to return. I couldn’t just kick my former student and her friend out of my apartment on Saint Mark’s Place. They needed time to find somewhere to live. I wasn’t naïve enough to expect Manna to arrive with the dew during the night. I needed somewhere safe to recover my health. I needed time to compose, and to take copy work to pay debts. Bill helped me. He told me to come to Virginia, and that he would work something out. A few days later, as the plane succumbed to gravity and sank through charcoal-colored rain clouds towards the tarmac at JFK, so did my heart.
I reached Mt. San Angelo in the middle of one of those Virginia winter storms when the air is warm, but the trees are sheathed in ice and look like glittering dowsing rods swaying in the wind. Bill and I cleared out a small storage room. Together, we moved a battered upright piano into it, a desk, found a cot, and roused out one of the Bolivian flags that were used back then as bedspreads. I launched into fifteen-hour workdays, finishing the full score of Common Ground. Ned Rorem had just finished a brass quintet—he threw the copying to me. After a couple of months, I ventured back to New York. I helped my student and her friend pack their things and reclaimed the apartment on St. Mark’s Place. I had an address and a phone number again. Ann Stanke was one of the first to call. At the time, I honestly couldn’t recall why she wanted to talk to me. After admonishing me for having disappeared for six months, she announced that she had good news: Madison Opera had decided to move ahead with commissioning Shining Brow, the opera that launched my career as an opera composer.
Along with being a terrific writer and honored professor, Bill moved the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts to its present home on Mount San Angelo and served for over twenty years as its director. According to Sweet Briar College’s obituary, “Smart grew the artists’ colony into becoming the nation’s largest, rebuilding its campus after a major fire and helping to mentor and inspire hundreds of authors, artists and composers who have gone on to win MacArthur genius grants, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes and other major fellowships and grants.” He helped found the international organization of artists’ colonies, Res Artis. A decade ago, he moved to Amalgamated in the Bronx.
Bill and I had fallen out of touch, and not spoken for over a decade. Like me, Bill was an alcoholic. Long ago, during his drinking years, he created his share of hurt and chaos. But he also, at the lowest point of my life, accepted me as I was then, and threw me the rope that probably saved me. I know I’m not the only one he saved. I owed him, and still do. Godspeed, old friend.